What is a constitution? What place and relevance, if any, does it have in the popular imagination? Do citizens really care about an abstract document most would never have seen or read, when more pressing existential concerns continue to bedevil their lives and livelihoods, even post-war?
My struggle through curation has always been to explore the inconvenient and marginal through new or alternative ways of observing. Through visual art, theatre, sculpture, music, photography, literature, video and information visualisations, I have creatively leveraged unusual pairings and strange juxtapositions to shift complacency and apathy to critical reflection and engagement.
‘Corridors of power’ is my most ambitious curatorial attempt yet. When, years ago, I studied the process through which South Africa negotiated the transition out of apartheid rule – which involved a paradigm shift in their constitutional frameworks – I registered the use of a wide range of media at the time (before the days of social media, smartphones and the Internet as we know it today) to critically support debates amongst civil society that were as rooted in locale as they were widespread over geography. It occurred to me – with all the technological tools and platforms in use by so many today, why are constitutional reform and related debates still so alien to and removed from society in Sri Lanka – a country seven times smaller in size than South Africa, with far less identity groups and just three instead of eleven official languages?
Connected to this was an interest in the constitution as an enabling (or in the case of Sri Lanka, enervating) idea. The process through which the heinous 18th Amendment came to pass was deeply instructive in how through the manipulation of discursive spaces, the spread of misinformation, the shrill drowning out voices of caution and reason and in a context of fear, with mainstream media controlled by partisan and market driven interests, expedient parochialism was seen as somehow benevolent and necessary.
Two years after the 18th Amendment, my first attempt to interrogate the constitution through architecture was in 2012 with ‘Mediated’ – an exhibition that focussed on research driven art – and was anchored to the depicting the power-sharing in pre-British Sri Lanka as a viable model for devolution of power, post-war. The output was a collaboration between architect Sunela Jayawardene and Asanga Welikala, a constitutional lawyer and close friend from the halcyon days of S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. My second attempt was in 2013, and involved Sunela agin. As part of the ‘30 Years Ago’ exhibition, a triptych by her portrayed key developments and individuals three decades after the events of ‘Black July’, using Google Maps imagery on Jaffna, Colombo and elsewhere as the base layer.
Though compelling and critically acclaimed in their own right, I yearned for a more finely matched interrogation of Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution through architecture. Architecture is for me a dark art – making small spaces seem larger than they are, harnessing the chiaroscuro within a building to influence the mood of inhabitants, enabling access to spaces, barring access to others, creating secret pathways, chambers and shortcuts purposefully or inadvertently, giving the illusion of openness, when in fact inhabitants are boxed in, or conversely, freeing up a claustrophobic space with just slivers of open sky.
If architects were the gods of spaces they created, I wondered, could the same be said of those who drafted our constitution?
A constitution is essentially a blueprint of power relations. Architecture – drawing, rendering and modelling – provides a blueprint of spatial relationships. This exhibition is not a study in how and to what degree (State or authoritarian) power influences the design of edifices. It is rather an attempt to use the visual and spatial expression of architecture to visually depict as well as deconstruct loci of power as enshrined in our constitution.
What, I imagined, would a corridor that connected a central hall to a room far in the periphery look like? How many people could fit into these corridors? What would the President’s room look like? Would it be large and grandiose with thick walls and few windows? How would someone access the Supreme Court? What would Parliament look like? What would the rooms and offices within it be like – porous walls that allowed conversations from adjacent spaces to seep in, a catacomb of doors, some mysteriously locked, to access what was otherwise a stone’s throw away? How large would the main halls be, and how cramped would be the periphery’s accommodation?
Approaching Asanga again, I invited him to capture in writing what he thought were crucial stages in Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution since 1972. I then approached Channa Daswatta. Asanga’s research became the site, and I, his client. Regular face to face interactions with Channa in his office, lasting hours, and the exchange of ideas with Asanga led to this exhibition. It is the riveting accomplishment, through Asanga’s and Channa’s genius, of a vision I have harboured for years.
The exhibition clearly demonstrates the futility of even more amendments to a constitution that since conception 1978 was deeply flawed. It highlights the outgrowth of authoritarianism, and the illusion of stability. It gives life to the phrase, “the centre cannot hold”. Through errors thrown up by the architectural programme Autodesk Revit, significant flaws of our present constitution are clearly flagged. The models will collapse over time. The drawings are increasingly grotesque.
The architectural output makes abundantly clear the failure of our constitutional vision.
All this, we countenanced. All this, we could have opposed. All this, we voted in, defended or were silent about.
‘Corridors of power’, as with all my exhibitions previously, is an invitation to reflect on what we have been hostage to in the past in order to imagine a more just, inclusive, open future. Spaces to meet, reflect and react need expansion. The checks and balances of power need firmer foundations. Centripetal tendencies in design must be eschewed in favour of centrifugal development. We need open spaces instead of closed sites, grass to walk and play on instead of just to admire. Easy access to key locations. Light, more than shadow and shade too, where needed.
In sum, we need to be the architects of the change we want to see. It is the essence of citizenship. It is what gives life to a constitution worth having. Worth knowing.
Sanjana Hattotuwa, 4 September 2015
Corridors of power: Drawing and modelling Sri Lanka’s tryst with democracy, ….. 15 – 22 September 2015, JDA Perera Gallery, Horton Place, Colombo …
Panels and keynotes …….All panels, keynotes and discussions will run from 5.30 – 7pm. The opening night reception will be from 6pm to 9pm.
15th September, Opening night
- Sanjana Hattotuwa, Introduction to exhibition and curation
- Channa Daswatta, The centre cannot hold: Centripetal evolution, centrifugal desires
- Asanga Welikala, The cartography of change: Constitutional reform and the imagination
16th September, The constitutional vision of the new government (Keynote)
As reported in the media in May this year, Jayampathy Wickramaratne, the leader of a three-member team that prepared the 19th Amendment, called for a new Constitution which will include a fresh Bill of Rights and address the issues of devolution of powers to provincial councils and power sharing at the Centre. After the General Election on 17th August, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was reported in the media expressing hope that a political consensus could be reached within months on a new Constitution for Sri Lanka, because in his opinion the issues that needed to be resolved were fairly narrow. This triumph of hope and optimism over bitter experience may not last long, and the window for substantive changes in Sri Lanka’s constitutional fabric is small. If our present constitution is fundamentally unsound, what can be done in imagining a new one to ensure the flaws are addressed? And if in addressing these flaws, hard choices have to be made, how can a constitutional reform process secure the requisite political will, above purely parochial and expedient considerations, to stay the course? How will citizens be a part of this process – as mere onlookers, or as active participants? What are the core values the government will anchor the new constitution to and seek through its passage, the entrenchment of in the popular imagination? Ultimately, independent of the success or failure of the project around a new constitution, what does the new government aim to achieve around constitutional reform in a manner qualitatively different to attempts in the past?
17th September, The challenge of constitutional reform: Mediating change and managing continuity (Keynote)
The process of constitutional reform in Sri Lanka, if only just the 18th and 19th Amendments are taken into account, is deeply problematic. The opposition to the 18th Amendment, in terms of substance as well as the way in which it was pushed through the legislature, was in comparison to the 19th Amendment far more pronounced and widespread. And yet, even with the 19th Amendment, significant concerns around the lack of information in the public domain around the draft bill, the resulting lack of strategic, planned, public consultation or debate and the perplexing inability (or unwillingness) to translate into Tamil and Sinhala in a timely manner the substance of the Amendment is indicative of enduring challenges. Negotiations over substantive and core issues aside, the failure to architect a robust process of constitutional reform seriously risks the needless strengthening of spoilers, and the eventual derailment of the best intentions. How can one manage to secure public trust in a constitutional reform process? What can be done to encourage public interest in issues and considerations that so many see as largely peripheral to more existential concerns? How does a reform process deal with the legacy of the present constitution, and the common law jurisprudence that pre-dates it with the need to reimagine the State, nationhood and citizenship? What is the role of compromise, and at which point does necessary compromise turn into expedient connivance? How can vital substantive issues around the reform process, even if they don’t find direct expression in a new constitution, be publicly discussed, also leveraging the raft of technology tools available today.
18th September, The chiaroscuro of power: Architecture’s role in hegemony and change (Keynote)
Channa’s note on this exhibition avers thst “the premise has been that architecture is essentially about creating relationships between various spaces occupied by people and thus making the potential for interaction between them.” When the Design Museum in London named world renowned Hahid’s Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan, the winner of the Design of the Year award in 2014, critics noted that Hahid’s lack of concern over who commissioned the edifice, and who it commemorates, was deplorable. As Russell Curtis, a founding director of London-based architects RCKa, an award-winning design practice noted at the time and in response to the award, “It’s naive to believe that architecture and politics are mutually exclusive: the two are inextricably linked.” What is an architect’s role, if any, in critiquing the status quo? Is there a greater social or civic responsibility around public projects, for example those commissioned by the State, or does the client, which could be an authoritarian government, to the exclusion of all other voices, determine the final structure and order of things? What are instances where architecture, through design or appropriation and in terms of the geo-spatial organisation of space, has fuelled reform and even revolt? And if that is possible, is the converse also true – can architecture create more harmonious social relations through spatial relationships?
- Channa Daswatta
- Respondent: Sunela Jayawardene
19th September, The ‘F’ word and the Tamil National Question (Keynote)
In Sri Lanka, merely acknowledging federalism’s role and relevance in constitutional reform risks derailing the process comprehensively. The popular imagination in the South invests in the term an almost unshakeable fear of eventual secession. Years of vilification, negative stereotyping and misinformation have been – at least for those vehemently opposed federalism– successful. Opposition to the idea, and indeed, a clear understanding of its central place in architecting a new constitution, remain, respectively, high and low. On the other hand, much of this opposition stems from the enduring inability of some of federalism’s greatest champions to clearly address some of these fears, and communicate clearly what it is, and is not. Lawyers often assume society writ large to have as good a knowledge of the law as they do, and politicians often support or decry federalism based purely on parochial, electoral gain. Principled, reasoned arguments around federalism, embracing for example concepts that call for the recognition of multiple nations within a united Sri Lanka, are central to meaningful answers around the Tamil national question. And if the Tamil national question is seen as central to realising the democratic potential of Sri Lanka post-war, federalism and its discontent needs to be tackled head on. How can this be done? Given an electorate in the South largely unable and unwilling to support federalism prima facie, what can politicians do to strengthen critical reflection and support? Why is it even necessary, if as some would argue, existing provisions in the constitution are entirely adequate? Can there be meaningful debates around the Tamil national question without resorting to federalism and its promise? If maximalist demands continue without any compromise, and reciprocally, majoritarian fears around secession continue to hold hostage meaningful debates around a new constitutional framework, what is the fate of federalism in Sri Lanka and indeed, if it fails, the prospects around addressing the Tamil national question meaningfully?
- Respondent: Ameer M Faaiz
20th September, Framing discourse: Media, Power and Democracy (Panel)
The architecture of the mainstream media, and increasingly, social media (even though distinct divisions between the two are increasingly blurred) to varying degrees reflects or contests the timbre of governance and the nature of government. How can and should media reflect on its complicity in or contestation of cycles of violence? How can ‘acts of journalism’ by citizens revitalise democracy and how can journalism itself be revived to engage more fully with its central role as watchdog? In a global contest around editorial independence stymied by economic interests within media institutions, how can Sri Lanka’s media best ensure it attracts, trains and importantly, retains a calibre of journalists who are able to take on the excesses of power, including the silencing of inconvenient truths by large corporations? Simply put, what is the role of media in securing democracy against its enemies, within the media itself and beyond?
Moderator: Asoka Obeyesekere
21st September, Drawing power: Framing the inconvenient, imagining the impossible (Panel)
Framing violence, and drawing an audience’s attention to it, can be powerfully achieved through the arts. In this reading, art inhabits a space under constant risk of expiration or asphyxiation – licenses can be revoked, scripts can be censored, art can be banned and artists can be silenced. On the other hand, art is also resistance – a space for contestation. If the pervasive architecture of authoritarianism is invisible to most, and society’s capture is through the power of deceit, art serves to decry, dissent and deconstruct. The most critical art risks pushback, whereas art that offers the illusion of critique often flourishes the most. As panellist Gehan Gunatilleke avers in his review of a very popular English play during the Rajapaksa regime, art can by design or inadvertently help strengthen the status quo: “Pusswedilla is damaging our political culture… Instead of compelling audiences to question the absurdity of their reality, Pusswedilla encourages them to accept the current political dispensation as the best on offer. This is dangerous because there can be no change without discomfort. Pusswedilla is… cleverly packaged propaganda.” How can art frame the violent without giving rise to more violence? How can, in a context of hopelessness, art contribute to a triumph of optimism in the capacity for change, over bitter experience? In critiquing loci of power, do artists lose their agency or independence by accepting funding from various interest groups, who hold and seek to expand their own power? Or is the choice contextual? How does one cultivate the imagination within repressive terrains, and frame the necessary, even when violence reigns? How can critical art’s power be strengthened, its appeal expanded, its production strengthened?
Moderator Gihan Karunaratne
22nd September, Designing the future: Plotting change, planning reform (Panel)
If architecture is a vector to interrogate the past, present and future, how can we architect (pun intended) a more just, equitable and democracy future? At its simplest, can the design of public spaces militate against social exclusion and resulting frustration spilling over into violence? Conceptually, what can be done to fully grasp Sri Lanka’s democratic potential post-war? To what extent can our future be engineered, and to what degree can this political, cultural, economic and social engineering accommodate multiple narratives, identities and competing ideas? Youth are often said to be the architects of a better tomorrow – but what role do they have in shaping the present? How should we look at the past, and yet not be held hostage by it? How can we imagine the future, not forgetting what we have been and done in the past? The avowed mission of the world renowned magazine The Economist, as noted in its pages, is to “take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” How can this idea take root and find expression in our public life?
Moderator Amjad Mohamed-Saleem